Let’s talk chemistry

No, not the one which I had to take in college (to fulfill general education requirements), the prospect of a whole semester of it causing my toes to curl inward because my brain just dreads processing anything scientific or mathematical.

I’m speaking of another kind of chemistry. Yes, the sparkly, electrifying kind. Where the air between two people is so charged it short-circuits everything within a one-mile radius. I mean that as a hyperbole, of course, but try being objective when the sparks are bouncing off the walls and searing your eyeballs.

So, let’s talk about this thing called chemistry. We recognize it when we see it; we gripe when it fizzles rather than sizzles. But what exactly is on-screen chemistry (besides “sparks, what else?”) and how important is it in influencing our overall assessment of a drama or movie’s quality?

According to this BBC News article, on-screen chemistry isn’t as nebulous a concept as we sometimes imagine it to be. In fact, the Royal Society of Chemistry conducted a study on the best big-screen pairings (and all of a sudden I’m sitting up and thinking, “How cool of a research topic is that?”) and found that it was all a matter of getting the ingredients right. In short, on-screen chemistry is chemical in nature – the release of pheromones and other hormones.

In lay language, as Stephanie Charters, a psychiatrist at King’s College, London, explains, it is that potent and scintillating cocktail of “voice, eye contact, body language and excitement” creating this thing called “vibe” which scientists use to measure sexual attraction and chemistry. On-screen couples who give off this certain “vibe” make us cheer and cry and also “create unrealistic expectations of relationships,” says Jessica Fritz in her article on best on-screen chemistry.

How true that bit about unrealistic expectations. Think of the dramas and movies where we loved a couple so much we wanted the reel romance to blossom in real life, babies and grandbabies part of the happy long-term equation. How crushed we felt when one-half of the couple went on to marry someone else or to make another drama or movie where the chemistry was even more explosive, the audacity!

Two other findings from that Royal Society of Chemistry research jumped out at me. First, that in “almost all good pairs one person possessed qualities the other lacked.” Second, “two good actors doing their job” may not produce any kind of palpable on-screen chemistry.

Let’s mull over that awhile, shall we? For starters, let’s ponder the “our relationship sizzles because I possess what you lack and vice versa” notion. In other words, opposites attract. He’s a chaebol heir; she’s struggling to pay rent every month. He’s a hot architect; she’s as frumpy as your aunt. He’s exceedingly prickly; she’s a free-spirited bohemian. He comes to school escorted by ten bodyguards; she cycles alone, singing the whole way.

See how they clash. See how our eyes gleam watching them clash.

So many dramas and movies use the “a first encounter fraught with misunderstandings” trope to introduce the couple to us. It’s what gets us hooked because what’s a show without The Conflict? Does that mean, therefore, that the best chemistry comes from characters who are warring, who can’t stand the sight of each other at first (“she vomited on me, yuck!”) but who then proceed to fall headlong in love?

What about the ones who have always gotten along? The romantic pairing that shares more similar traits than opposing ones. Is that less compelling to watch?

Next, good acting alone isn’t going to cut it, as the findings suggest.

Does that mean that chemistry is something that can’t be faked? You either have chemistry or you don’t. Two actors may act their hearts out and leave us in awe, but our showers of praise omit the mention of chemistry between them because it was either non-existent or barely discernible. For example, I think of Jang Hyuk and Gong Hyo-jin in the 2007 drama, Thank You. Two wonderful actors with decidedly subdued chemistry. Choi Kang-hee, in a cameo role, had way more sparks with Jang Hyuk in the drama. They lit up in each other’s presence; they so obviously belonged together. I guess that is one of the main reasons why I could not root fully for our lead couple.

What about the shows where a lead character, usually female, has better chemistry with the second lead and I stupidly choose to root for this pairing even if it means I’m setting myself up for heartbreak? Or the dilemma when the female protagonist gets along like a barn on fire with BOTH suitors, leaving me cross-eyed and batty as I switch alliances every fifteen minutes?

All things considered, does it even matter? I look at my list of top ten dramas and movies and realize that in more than half of them, chemistry (of the conventional kind, between a man and a woman) did not figure among my reasons for falling in love with the show. Sometimes there’s no romance to speak of! Take my most beloved drama, Shin Don (2006). Son Chang-min, who plays the lead role, has the best chemistry with the following: an old monk, a young monk (Oh Man-seok)…

…and an absolutely stunning ungulate. ‘Twas love at first sight. (Between actor and animal, and between me and Ca Mel.)

So maybe chemistry is overrated. In the last few days I did a mental check of the dramas and movies I’ve watched and came away with the conclusion that chemistry has no bearing on how much I love or loathe a show.

For instance, I adore Ruler of Your Own World (2002) and adore its lead couple, Yang Dong-geun and Lee Na-young. But did they share an exceptional chemistry between them? I don’t think so; theirs was a quiet and understated relationship. He had more “chemistry” with the detective who was perpetually on his heels and with the fiery Mi-rae (Gong Hyo-jin) who could not believe she was losing her boyfriend to an indie rocker.

In the end I did not watch ROYOW repeatedly for the one true pairing; I watched for the honesty and humanity in the writing and characterization, and also for the fabulous soundtrack, among other things.

In fact, examples abound of dramas where I bailed early despite the couples fogging up the screen with their crackling chemistry, the sexual tension between them so thick wild horses can’t drag them apart. If the writing sucks, even kickass chemistry is not going to be able to salvage the show for me. But I’m peculiar that way, so don’t pelt me with the rotten tomatoes, dear fans of Mary Stay Out All Night. *ducks* Back in the ole days when I was still a wee thing in terms of kdrama-watching experience, I lapped up the likes of Winter Sonata and Mr. Duke because, oh, the sparks between the couple! I’m wiser now (and also snobbier, alas).

Speaking of Winter Sonata… Who does Choi Ji-woo have better chemistry with? Her Winter Sonata co-lead or the Beautiful Days one? Hahaha. Opening up a can of worms, I know. But seriously, as I was preparing for this post, I thought of certain popular actors who seem to hit it off with just about everyone. And then I drew up a list (in my head only since I do value my life), a pecking order of sorts with most chemistry on top and zilch chemistry below. Who has more, who has less, and with whom. Good stuff.

To wrap up this discussion, I’m going to toss out a few categories for you to ponder. Have fun drawing up your lists (five examples for each category).

Top 5 (drama or movie):

1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)

2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)

3. Best chemistry with a second lead

4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”

5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter

6. Awesome chemistry but awful show

Or forget the lists and just jump in and join the chatter on chemistry. You know you wanna!

Related post:

Let’s talk spoilers

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56 thoughts on “Let’s talk chemistry

  1. Top 5 (drama or movie):

    1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    Kim Sun Ah and Lee Dong Wook in Scent of a Woman…they had sparks flying with a single stare, they didn’t even have to speak, it was amazing.
    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    SKKS, those three boys had amazing moments together
    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    Dr. Champ had good bromance between fellow wrestlers Ji Heon and Sang Bong
    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
    Coffee House…that drama drove me nuts..left me torn apart at the end. Kang Ji Hwan had great chemistry with both Park Si Yeun and Ham Eun Jung, even though I like PSY’s long relationship I found to like HEJ better for her quirkiness which fit better with KJH.
    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    There are a couple which were great, remember watching my first saeguk Queen Seon Duk which I found great, even though there was chemistry, I found the cinematography and the story more interesting.
    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    Lie to Me with Yoon Eun Hye and Kang Ji Hwan…the Cola kiss made history lol ^___^ Awful writing though.
    My list is quite recent because I’m fairly new to the whole K-Drama craze, but some are quite amazing, I find myself more picky about the dramas I want to watch, the more I watch them. But I can never resist watching anything with Kang Ji Hwan and Kim Sun Ah, both are amazing actors.. will be great seeing them on a project together.

  2. Chemistry! Very palpable in the following:

    1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    Kim Sun Ah and Cha Seung Won (City Hall)
    *All the kiss scenes rock!
    Hyun Bin and Ha Ji Won (Secret Garden)
    *The sit-up scene sizzled!
    Kang Ji Hwan and Yoon Eun Hye (Lie to Me)
    Yoon Eun Hye and Gong Yoo (Coffee Prince)
    Park Shi Hoo and Moon Chae Won (The Princess’ Man)

    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    Kim Jae Won and Nam Gung Min (Can You Hear My Heart)
    *So much love (and skinship) but healthy and wholesome bromance
    Won Bin and Kim Sae Ron (Man from Nowhere)
    *Encounter of lonely and unfortunate souls (young girl and ahjusshi), both with indomitable spirits
    Yoon Yeo Jung and Jeong Bo Seok (Can You Hear My Heart)
    *Best mother-son pairing ever, quirky, funny and brimming with love
    No Eun Sol, Seo Na Yoon, Lee Myung Ran (Protect the Boss)
    *Funny sisterhood with rivalry flying out the window
    Yoo Ah In and Soong Jung Ki (Sungkyunkwan Scandal)
    *The bromance here may be similar to that of Ji Chang Wook and Yoo Seung Ho in WBDS (I ‘m just one-fourth through this drama)

    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    Lee Min Ho and the actress who played Go Jun Pyo’s fiancee (forgot her name)

    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
    Dream High: Suzy with Kim Soo Hyun / Suzy with Taecyeon
    Coffee House: Kang Ji Hwan with Park Shi Yeon / Kang Ji Hwan with Ham Eun Jung
    *Don’t know why but I was rooting for a KJH-HEJ pairing all the way to the very end.

    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    A Man’s Story –
    No clear OTP here and not much romance but story is compelling, the conflict so intense between protagonist/antagonist; excellent acting not only by the leads (Kim Kang Woo is so good at exuding evil) but also by supporting cast (which includes Park Ki Woong as an autistic hacking genius).
    Daemul –
    Kept hoping for Go Hyun Jung and Kwon Sang Woo to get on with the loving which was not only delayed but there was not much of. But the narrative was compelling enough, and the political intrigue and heroic efforts of the leads to fight corruption, etc kept me glued.
    Soulmate –
    I love the premise of this drama although the OTP got to meet halfway through the show and did not get to resolve the romance issue. One of the best endings ever. Very subtle but very much in keeping with the theme.

    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    Lie to Me wins this hands down.

  3. ive never commented before but i couldnt resist so heres my list:
    1. Best On-screen Chemistry ever (conventional pairing): Jung Il Woo & Lee Yo Won (49 days),Jung Kyung Ho & Lee Min Jung (Smile,You),Hyun Bin & Ha Ji Won ( Secret Garden), Jae Hee &Han Chae Young (Delightful Girl Chun Hyang), Jung Yong Hwa & Park Shin Hye ( Heartstrings/ Yffm)
    2.Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry(bromances etc.): Yoo Ah In & Song Joong Ki (SKKS)
    3.Best chemistry with a second lead: Yoon Kye Sang & Gong Hyo Jin (Best Love),Kim Hyun Joong & Goo Hye Sun (Boys Before Flowers), Jung Yong Hwa & Park Shin Hye ( You’re Beautiful)
    4.Best ” how the hell am i supposed to choose when have equal chemistry with BOTH”:Yoon Kye Sang ,Gong Hyo Jin & Cha Seung Won ( Best Love)
    5.Favorite drama or movie where chemistry did not matter: playful kiss. even though they did not have much chemistry (to me) i couldnt resist them at all.
    6.Awesome chemistry but awful show: Jang Geun Seok & Moon Geun Young Mary Stayed Out All Night started out great and then went to hell after the kiss.

  4. What an awesomely interesting topic.

    Hmm, the first time I consciously thought the word “chemistry” while watching a drama was in Secret Garden. I had to cover my eyes in the fitting room scene.

    When I was younger, I used to second-ship a lot. I don’t know if this was because of chemistry. It is probably the whole, “it just wasn’t meant to be” thing. For instance, Won Bin in Autumn’s Tale and Jang Sung Baek in Damo. I know, Jang Sung Baek was never meant to be, ever, but I couldn’t help it. I tried to ignore the whole brother-sister thing.

    Now I don’t do that anymore. Is it because there are no more compelling second leads? Hmm, although I shipped Kim Yoon Shik with Lee Seon Joon, I thought Moon Jae Shin was a good partner too. I guess it is more like that now I watch dramas to see how the writer puts the leads together, instead having my own fantasies about the characters.

    And now I am completely on board Hwang-Bo Yoon ship. Nauri!

  5. Top 5 (drama or movie):
    1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    can’t get enough for this couple:
    Park Shi Hoo – Kim So Yeon (Prosecutor Princess), Kang Ji Hwan -Han Ji Min (Capital Scandal), Hwang Jung Eum – Joo Sang Wook (Giant),
    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    Ji SUng – Jae Joong (Protect the boss), Yoo Ah In – Song Joong Ki (SKKS), Joo Hi Hoon – Kim Jae Wook (Antique Bakery), Jung Gyu Woon –
    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    BAe Soo Bin – Han Hyo Joo (Brilliant LEgacy), Gong Hyo Jin – Yoon Kye Sang (BEst Love),
    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
    Coffee House, Dream High, Hotelier
    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    so many …. The devil, comrades, HArvest villa, white christmas etc
    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    The only drama I’m watching great chem but awful script maybe: MSOAN, stairway to heaven, Lie To Me

    I need to catch CYHMH , seems so many raving about it… MAybe I will fallin in love with the couple ^^

    • add:
      Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
      Jung Gyu Woon – Jung Suk Won (Dr. Champ)

      Best chemistry with a second lead
      Joo Ji Hoon and Shin Min Ah in Naked Kitchen… Gahhh… They are so hot, compatible and look good together. THis movie is nothing special…. But their chemistry is so sizzling … make me want to go back watching the devil just want to see they are together LOL, Because I never focused on their romance in the devil before LOL :lol:

      when I see Naked kitchen and Antique Bakery recently, all of sudden I miss Joo Ji Hoon….

  6. 1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    Resurrection Uhm Tae Woong and Han Ji Min

    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    Joo Ji Hoon and Uhm Tae Woong in The Devil

    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    Kim Myung Min and Hyun Kyung from Bad Family

    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
    Autumn Tale’s Song Hye Kyo with Song Seung Hun and Won Bin

    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    Eyes of Dawn, Sandglass

    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    Winter Sonata’s Choi Ji Woo and Park Yong Ha (I hate saying that Bae Yong Jun really annoyed me in that drama, don’t know why.)

    In all honesty, I really dislike misunderstandings trope, where man and woman argue with one another all the time.

    • I would argue that Choi Min-soo and Park Sang Won had really great chemistry in Sandglass. You could really see that their characters loved each other in brotherly way, even if they were on the opposite lites of the law. Their last scene together was particularly heartbreaking in that aspect.

  7. I thought i had a lot of Kdramas to choose from, but i guess i’m really too selective when it comes to being committed to a drama. Eek.

    1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    -Ryu Si Won + Kim Hee Sun (in just about EVERY drama they starred in together)
    -Kim Rae Won + Jung Ryeo Won (Which Star Are You From)
    -Park Si Hoo + Kim So Yeon (Prosecutor Princess)
    -Park Si Hoo + Moon Chae Won (The Princess’ Man)

    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    -Lee Byung Hun + Ryu Si Won (Beautiful Days)– tough love. RAWR.
    -Lee Min Ho + Kim Hyun Joong (Boys Over Flowers)– bromance to the core.
    -Park Si Hoo + Lee Min Woo + Song Jong Ho (The Princess’ Man)– I cry.
    -Moon Chae Won + Hon Soo Hyun (The Princess’ Man)– <333

    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    -Ryu Si Won + Choi Ji Woo (Beautiful Days)
    -Kim Seung Woo + Bae Doo Na (How To Meet A Perfect Neighbor)~ ish. Since [*SPOILER ALERT*] he's not really considered "second lead" until the last half.

    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
    I'm usually firm with which ship i'm sailing..

    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    -Loveholic – not exactly "favorite", but i loved the "red thread" concept

    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    -Spy Myungwol

  8. I like a lot of the suggestions above! Here’s a few ideas . . .

    1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    Park Shin Hye, Jang Keun Suk in YAB
    Lee Min Ho, Park Min Young, City Hunter
    Kimura Takuya, Yamaguchi Tomoko, Long Vacation
    Lee Dong Wook, Kim Sun Ah, Scent of a Woman
    Chae Rim, Lee Min Ki, Dal Ja’s Spring

    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    Lee Min Ho, Kim San Ho, City Hunter
    Ha Jae-Suk, Wang Ji-Hye, Protect The Boss
    Eita, Juri Ueno, Last Friends
    Juri Ueno, Hiroshi Tamaki, Nodame Cantabile
    Kamenashi and Yamapi, Nobuta
    The grandfather and Yong Hwa’s sister in Heartstrings

    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    Choi Jung Won, Shin Dong Wook, Stars Falling From the Sky
    Toma Ikuta, Maki Horikita, Hana Kimi
    Yoon Eun Hye and all the coffee boys! (So cute) Coffee Prince

    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
    Gong Hyo-jin, Cha Seung-won, Yoon Kye-sang, Best Love
    Ryu Jin, Jang Na Ra, Daniel Choi, Baby Faced Beauty
    Definitely Dream High!

    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    Golden Bowl (Takeshi Kaneshiro!)
    My Girlfriend is a Gumiho

    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    Jang Keun Suk & Moon Geun Young, Mary Stayed Out All Night – chemistry kept me with that messy show and I stuck with Myung Wol longer than I should have because the sixties satirical set up was so promising and there was chemistry . . . but generally not too many here – life’s too short to stay with the awful show regardless of awesome chemistry . . .

  9. 1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    my all time favorite : Coffee prince (Go Eun Chan n Han Kyul is a pair made in k-drama heaven) and Gumiho n Woong-ah were so cute together, so much that i think its unfair that Shin Mina get paid to date and hugs Lee Seunggi that many times.

    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    Kim Gab Soo n Moon Geun Young in Cinderella Sister.
    i also like Lee Mi Sook n Kim Gab Soo chemistry, its like they understand each other’s objective but accepts it? its so good.
    and Song Joong Ki and Yoo Ah In in SKKS, i’m wishing for this pairing in a drama.

    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    Autumn Tale, how is it possible that Won Bin don’t get the girl?

    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
    Dream High. I don’t care who she end up with, good chemistry with both.

    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    thank you.

    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    Lie to me and My fair lady. both Yoon Eun Hye, she always have awesome chemistry since Goong.

  10. 1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    Moon Geun Young/ Jang Geun Suk (MSOAN)
    Gong Yoo / Yoon Eun Hye (Coffee Prince)
    Joo Ji Hoon / Yoon Eun Hye (Goong)
    Kim Sun Ah / Cha Seung Won (City Hall)
    Lee Jung Jin / Su Ae (9 Ends 2 Outs)
    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    F4 (BOF), Ah In / Joongki (SKKS),
    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    Yoon Eun Hye and Lee Sun Gyun (Coffee Prince), MGY and Kim Jae Wook (MSOAN), Bae Soo Bin and Han Hyo Joo (Brilliant Legacy), Kim Hyun Joong and Gu Hye Sung (BOF), Won Bin and Hye Kyo (Autumn in my heart), Park Min Young and Ah In (SKKS)
    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”
    Shin Hye/Geun Suk/Yong Hwa (Youre Beautiful), Yoon Hye/Sun Gyun/Gong Yoo (Coffee Prince), Song Seung Hun/Hye Kyo/ and Won Bin (Autumn’s Tale). Kang Ji Hwan and both Ham Eun Jung and Park Shiyeon (Coffee House / Page One)
    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    Thank You, Story of a Man, a few I can’t remember at the moment.
    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    Hand down Mary Stayed Out All Night, so much chemistry between the two male leads and Moon Geun Young wasted on a crap plot and crazy script writing.

  11. Top 5 (drama or movie):
    1. Best on-screen chemistry ever (conventional pairings)
    The best for me would be Joo JI Hoon and Yoon Eun HYe from Goong. I looove them to bits and one of those people who wish they will end up in real life.
    YEH was ok too with Kang Ji Hwan, but I still prefer Ji Hoon-oppa :) hope they will make another drama after he comes out of Military service.
    Another would be Jung Yong Hwa and Park Shin HYe in Heartstrings.

    2. Best unconventional/odd-couple chemistry (bromances, etc.)
    I watched SkkS rooting for Moon Jae Shin (Yoo Ah In) and Kim Yoon Hee (Park Min Young) but at the same time I could feel this tension with Gu Yong Ha (Song Joong Ki) :)

    3. Best chemistry with a second lead
    Again PMY and YAI from Skks, I really have wanted them to end up together! ANd I really didn’t watch ep. 20 because I know they will not end up with each other! >.<

    And again, I like Park Shin Hye with Jung Yong Hwa in You're Beautiful ( I'm not really a Jang Geun Seuk fan at all) and because of that show I was hooked to CNBLUE! ^^

    4. Best “how the hell am I supposed to choose when you have equal chemistry with BOTH”

    Probably Coffee Prince where I didn't really care to whom YEH will end up, with Gong Yoo or Lee Sun Gyun.

    5. Favorite dramas (or movies) where chemistry did not matter
    My Fair Lady. YEH and Yoon Sang Hyun/ Jung Il Woo. I watched that drama with my only focus is to Yoon Eun HYe. She actually didn't have this sizzling chemistry with both of the guys but she alone is enough.

    6. Awesome chemistry but awful show
    Heartstrings/You've Fallen for me . It was rather pointless to watch the drama since it doesn't have a coherent plot but I finished it because of Yong Hwa and Shin HYe's chemistry.
    Lie to Me's ending was rather abrupt and uneventful. I hated the last part but I really do love YEH and KJH!

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